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Action Films and Why Shane Black Gets It

Devon Malcolm

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Shane Black just tweeted about this article he wrote for the Guardian (via Sam Delaney) back in 2009 and pretty much nails why his films almost always work, and also why everyone should be excited for The Predator. I'm assuming everyone is but there's always one.



A man, a mission, a fiendishly clever bad guy, some guns and a few explosions. It's the classic recipe for a good action movie. Back in the 1980s, Shane Black became Hollywood's go-to screenwriter for that sort of stuff. He wrote Lethal Weapon when he was just 23 and went on to write scripts for Last Action Hero, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight. As the forthcoming 12 Rounds bucks the recent summer blockbuster trend for self-indulgent CGI, aliens, superheroes and implausibly large-scale battles - to transport us back to a time when heroes would conquer villains with nothing more than courage, a revolver and a stock of sardonic one-liners - this is his masterclass of moves no action movie should be without.

1. An action-driven plot

That sounds obvious but I see a lot of movies these days that have a bunch of scenes that concern the plot and a bunch of separate scenes that feature the action. But you could lift all the action scenes out wholesale and it would make no difference to the meaning of the film. The action should always go hand in hand with the story so it's all invisibly interconnected. Take the original Star Wars movies: every action sequence is perfectly timed and is designed not just to excite the audience on a visceral level but also to reveal crucial elements of the plot and characters.

2. Highs and lows

An action movie should, like any other, follow the narrative traditions of literature. That means there should be subtlety, a slow build and a gradual bringing together of all the separate threads of the plot. To see all of it coming together slowly is very rewarding for the audience. But if you make everything go at 100 miles per hour from the outset, it loses any impact or meaning. I mean, if a flying truck lands on the bonnet of your car, it should be shocking and scary. But if stuff like that is happening constantly throughout the film, it becomes mundane. An action film can have too much action; picture an equaliser on a stereo, with all the knobs pegged at 10. It becomes a cacophony and is, ultimately, quite boring. Now picture the high-low variations in a film such as Jaws. The lulls, the high points: it's essentially a well-choreographed dance with the viewer.

3. Sudden impact

I have a friend who is a paramedic. Recently he told me about finding a guy who had fallen off a ledge over a freeway and died instantly. The guy had been skipping along with a friend, telling her about a party he was going to, hopped on to a ledge and a second later he was gone. That's how moments of drama unfold in real life. Quickly, spontaneously and with no warning. That's how they should be in action films, too. Violence and action should suddenly punctuate perfectly normal circumstances. Take the moment when the house explodes in Lethal Weapon: these two guys, who we've already established are a pair of plodding cops, wander up to the building and suddenly, boom! The explosion was immense but it was the only thing of that scale in the entire movie. It was supposed to be shocking and wild and sudden. You could see the protagonists were scared by it. Often, those moments are just stretched out for too long, like in Die Another Day: Bond is driving around on this ice sheet and his car flips on its roof. He pops the ejector seat to make the car flip back on to its wheels and the audience gasp. Now, if he'd quickly fired his rockets and nailed the bad guy it would have been the perfect end to the sequence and the audience would have applauded. But instead they stretched the sequence out for another 10 minutes and it just got dull.

4. Throwaway gags

I always have humour in my action movies. I think characters that make jokes under fire are more real. It somehow helps put you in their shoes. But only if the jokes are conversational and not stupid. I think in recent times people have gone overboard with a certain type of Jerry Lewis style. But I used to love older movies where the jokes were more throwaway: that effortless riffing that Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy did so well in 48 Hrs - remember when they're trailing a suspect and Eddie says: "For a cop you're pretty stupid, man. You're driving too close." And Nick says: "Yeah, well, most cops are pretty stupid, but seeing as you landed in jail what does that make you?" Real people in real situations don't stop and wait for their gags to be registered and applauded. They just chuck them out as they go along.

5. Subjective action

I try to make all the action in my movies subjective; to give a sense of what it would feel like to actually be a part of it. You might see a person disappear in the shadows and then a shot come out of nowhere. A great example of this style is the shootout scene in No Country For Old Men. You're in the protagonist's shoes. What surprises him surprises you. Another example, probably the best ever, is the shootout in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You don't remember specific beats - just the crash of guns, the headlong suicide run, the crescendo and out. It builds perfectly and really creates a harrowing atmosphere.

6. Awkwardness

Amid moments of violence there are often moments of awkwardness. I try to take advantage of the humour and the horror that come from this. In The Hitcher there is a scene where the protagonist wakes up to find that everyone in the police station is dead and the police dog is eating the throat of a corpse. Touches like that lend an uncomfortable realism, like one of those scenes where two men are struggling for a gun, it goes off and they realise they have accidentally shot an innocent bystander. It's good to show the absurd things that actually happen during chaotic moments of violence. Another great example is in Pulp Fiction, when they're driving along and John Travolta accidentally shoots the kid in the back seat.

7. Conventions stood on their head

Say you have a character who walks into a haunted house. They realise there's a ghost there and they decide to investigate further. But if I was writing the movie, I would have that character run out of the house the moment he realises it's haunted - and not stop running for 10 miles. It's not what the audience is expecting - but it's exactly what would happen in real life. In Kiss Kiss Bang Bang I had a character playing Russian roulette. He put a single bullet in a gun and spun the chamber. The tension built - and then he blew his own brains out. Which isn't what you usually expect to happen when you see a Russian roulette scene. You have to keep surprising your audience.

8. Set-ups and pay-offs

There's a great example of this in Face/Off. Near the start of the film John Travolta explains to his daughter how to defend herself with a knife: he says she should stab a guy in the leg and twist the knife once it's in there. By the end of the film, the audience has half-forgotten the scene. But when the daughter has a bad guy holding a gun to her head and pulls out a knife, everybody remembers. When she stabs him in the leg, they cheer. And when she twists it, they cheer louder. Audiences love those moments when something from much earlier in the film comes back and makes them slap their foreheads and say to themselves, "Of course!" Sometimes I write a scene and I think to myself: "That would be even better if I'd somehow set it up earlier in the film." So I turn back to page 15, insert a set-up and wind up looking like a genius who had planned it like that all along.

9. Reversals

There was a great gag in the TV show Hee Haw that sums up the idea of reversals. A guy is telling a story about a man who fell out of a plane. His friend says: "Oh no, he fell out of a plane? That's bad!" And the first guy says: "Well, he had a parachute." So the second guy says: "Oh, that's good." But then the first guy says: "Yeah, but the parachute didn't open." And so it goes on: the guy had a second parachute, but that one had a rip in it, but it was OK because there was a haystack below him but then it turned out the haystack had a pitchfork sticking out of it. And so on. Action sequences need this constant reversal of fortune. Like where the hero kills a snake but in the process opens a cupboard that's filled with a hundred more snakes. For this kind of rapid back and forth, check out the Luke/Vader duel at the end of Empire Strikes Back.

10. Quality of edge

If someone fires a gun in a movie, it should always be a big deal. I don't like movies where someone shoots at someone else but they just run away and manage to dodge the bullet. Or people are all firing at each other continuously for 10 minutes. You need shock and impact and a genuine sense of peril whenever violence takes place. It can't just be a crazy circus with no jeopardy. For a good example of violence with a real edge, look at Three Kings, where there's an aside solely about getting shot and a detailed explanation of developing sepsis. Later in the film, there's one gunfight and when a guy gets shot, you instantly remember that explanation. Boom. You feel like the world's ending. You realise that the character needs help, now!

I think there are quality exceptions to some of the rules here (with regard to 2, Fury Road starts at 100mph and only slows down a couple of times thereafter but does carry that emotional stock anyway) but imagine how much better action cinema would be if everyone remembered all these rules? I think the 2010s have been a really good action decade anyway but if more followed Black's checklist here then it would be even better.

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The 2000s weren't a great decade for action, I think it suffered from the collapse of the rental market where a lot of action (and horror) thrived and made its name, and also the collapse of post-colonial Hong Kong's output. But this decade has been great.

I did a list a while back of what I regard as really good action films from this decade, but there are still a lot I haven't seen so it's far from exhaustive.


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